No veteran left behind: How an ex-Marine is saving lives back home

Martin Kuz

Zach Skiles arrived at The Pathway Home in 2010 knowing he needed help yet convinced he had his problems under control. The residential treatment program, located in northern California’s Napa Valley, provided intensive therapy to Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans coping with mental trauma. There they began the long journey back from war.

Seven years earlier, as a 20-year-old Marine, Mr. Skiles had taken part in the US invasion of Iraq. During his nine-month tour, four of his closest friends died, two of whom he saw killed in action. After his discharge in 2004, he drifted between jobs and school in San Francisco and Los Angeles, straining to prove to others – and himself – that he had left Iraq behind.

“I was in denial that I had PTSD,” he recalls, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. He received occasional counseling at Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics; more often, he relied on marijuana and alcohol to tame a mind still gripped by the extreme alertness required in combat. “I was kind of lost inside myself.”

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At The Pathway Home, where he lived with fellow veterans in a dormlike setting akin to military barracks, Skiles learned to set down the inner burdens of war. In time, he found renewed purpose, and for the past two years, guided by that program’s ethos, he has counseled veterans of America’s 21st-century wars at a VA clinic in Martinez, Calif., on the fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The VA program bears similarities to Pathway, with a daily group session at the heart of its therapy regimen. Skiles coaxes the combat veterans to share with each other what they reveal to no one else: the nightmares and flashbacks, the rage and despair, the memories of the dead and the impulse to die.

As he seeks to shepherd them through the valley of the after-war, his military background disarms their wariness, explains Dr. Jeffrey Kixmiller, director of the clinic’s residential program.

“Zach has immediate credibility because he’s one of them,” he says. “And he has insights about them that we might never otherwise have because he knows what it’s like to be in combat.”

Researchers estimate that 11 to 20 percent of the more than 2.7 million men and women who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD linked to their service. Skiles approaches his role with an urgency informed by his own ordeal and an awareness of that vast need – a need illuminated by Pathway’s tragic demise last year.

“Pathway completely changed my life and brought me back into the world,” he says. “And that’s what I’m trying to do: bring these guys back.”

EMPATHY AND RESILIENCE

The Pathway Home occupied a building on the bucolic grounds of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville. The tranquil setting contrasted with the internal chaos of the veterans receiving therapy.

Albert Wong, a former Army infantryman who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, started attending Pathway early last year. His erratic behavior led to his dismissal in February. Two weeks later, he returned to the premises and fatally shot three clinicians, one of whom was pregnant, before turning the gun on himself.

In the aftermath, Pathway’s board of directors chose to end a program that had treated some 450 veterans since 2008 and had earned national attention months earlier with the release of “Thank You for Your Service.” The feature film, based on the 2013 bestseller of the same name, dramatized one veteran’s passage through Pathway.

A week earlier, Skiles had traveled to Yountville and met with the three clinicians – Christine Loeber, Jennifer Golick, and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba – to explore ideas for collaboration. He took them into the room where he had lived for four months, where his Iraq tour had ended at last.

At a memorial for the trio, Skiles, asked by Pathway officials to deliver an address on behalf of its graduates, fought back tears and extolled them “for giving everything in service of veterans.” Their deaths deepened his resolve to aid those who remain shadowed by war. 

“Some people see what happened as a reason to turn away from veterans,” says Skiles, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at a graduate school in Berkeley, Calif. “To me, it showed exactly why these programs are important.”

Soon after Skiles had enrolled at Pathway in 2010, Fred Gusman, the program’s founder, identified in him a blend of empathy and resilience – ideal traits for a therapist. Mr. Gusman, a Vietnam veteran and former senior director with the VA’s National Center for PTSD, later invited him back as a peer counselor.

“Zach decided early on in treatment that he wanted to do more,” says Gusman, who stepped down from Pathway in 2015. “He understands what recovery takes – the work you have to put in – and he knows it’s normal to have setbacks.”

Gusman recognized that veterans tend to view PTSD as a personal flaw that violates the mythical warrior code. Living at Pathway, Skiles grew to accept that his condition represents a normal reaction to combat’s abnormal extremes. He attempts to cultivate a similar shift in thinking among the veterans he now counsels so that they might escape the emotions – self-blame, unresolved anger, survivor’s guilt – that can keep them trapped on a distant battlefield.

“We’re not changing the past,” he says. “We’re just getting perspective on it and figuring out how to live with it.”

A SENSE OF BELONGING

Anthony Allen unspooled a decade after losing several friends during his tour in Iraq with the Army National Guard. He left the military following his return in 2007 and filled the ensuing years with lucrative work in the country’s oil fields and unrestrained partying when home in northern Arizona.

Two years ago, while blackout drunk, Mr. Allen was involved in a domestic dispute with his then-fiancée, who shot him in the neck. He remembers nothing of the incident that partially paralyzed one side of his body. (No charges were filed in the case.)

As Allen recovered in the hospital, a friend told him about the VA program in Martinez. He credits Skiles with giving him insight into PTSD that has eased his shame, allowing him to begin the process of forgiving himself.

“He saved my life,” says Allen, who lives in transitional housing near the clinic as he continues his physical therapy and counseling. He came to the program believing that talking about combat trauma would expose him as weak. He instead felt embraced. “I was welcomed with open arms. I had never experienced that kind of love before.”

On a recent weekday, Skiles sat in his small office, where stacks of files and bags of candy vie for table space. Immersed in the demands of the clinic and school, he has yet to map out his career direction beyond a desire to counsel former service members.

At a given time, the Martinez program works with eight to 10 veterans, who sleep two to a room and share a space where they can cook, watch movies, and shoot pool. The milieu evokes garrison living and serves to lure them out of self-isolation.

“What they’re often missing is that tribal feeling,” Skiles says. In addition to counseling sessions, he leads art therapy classes and organizes outings for them, including weekly visits to an animal rescue facility to learn to train service dogs. “We want to give them a sense of belonging.”

Most of the veterans stay four to six months, and the program assists them with obtaining VA benefits, job referrals, and other supportive services as needed. As part of their recovery, Skiles emphasizes that reintegrating into civilian life marks the final stage. The lesson draws on a principle he absorbed years ago at The Pathway Home.

“You can either let what you experienced in war hold you back or be the thing that makes you thrive,” he says. “When they leave here, we want them to know there’s a reason to live. I found it. I want to help them find it.”

THREE OTHER GROUPS ADDRESSING TRAUMA

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